An Invitation to Suffering

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“An Invitation to Suffering” is a short essay by Bob Lupton from his book, Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America. Bob has had a profound impact on my life as he freely shares his woes and joys of inner-city life and ministry for over 40 years in a very challenging and transparent way:

I do not like pain. Not in any form. Loneliness, sickness (my own or another’s), anxiety, frustration, disappointment, hurt–these are not the companions with which I choose to share my life. I actively avoid them. I buy drugs from the pharmacist to shield me from physical pain. I surround myself with people like myself who dispel my loneliness and reassure me that I am OK. I control my contacts with people who take more than they can give. I schedule my days to eliminate disruptions and to accomplish the things I think significant or pleasurable. A theology of abundance,  peace, and health has enormous appeal for me.

Recently, I witnessed a small act in the drama of city live that both moved and troubled me deeply. It was a familiar situation. A family with three small children was evicted again for nonpayment of rent.  Their ritual “put me up for just tonight” had been used too often. With no money for bargaining, the only place they could find to stay was a front porch. The father slept under a bush. Although I was quite unwilling to give them any more, I wondered what would become of them

Then an unbelievable but predictable event occurred. An unemployed brother whose own family was barely surviving took his evicted relatives in. Once again, it was those who could least afford extra mouths to feed and were already crowded to the point of eviction who found it in their hearts to help. Even more disturbing to me was the cost of caring: increased hunger; hot sleepless nights made even more uncomfortable by crying babies and wall-to-wall bodies; the stench of inadequate sanitation; short tempers; constant confusion.

This picture still burns in my mind. It is a haunting reminder of the energy I spend avoiding the cost of loving others. I establish an emergency fund instead of inviting hungry families to eat at my table.  I develop a housing program to avoid the turmoil of displaced families living in my home. I create employment projects that distance me from the aggravation of working with undisciplined people. As a counselor, I maintain detachment with a fifty-minute hour and an emphasis on client self-responsibility. And even as I share the gospel with the needy, I secretly hope that God will handle their problems.

Of course I don’t allow myself to think this way very often. I choose rather to concentrate on the positive things I am doing for people, the helpful things, right things. But when I am honest with myself, I must admit that I cannot fully care for one who is suffering without entering into his pain. The sick must be touched if they are to be healed. The weak myst be nourished, the wounded embraced. Care is the bigger part of the cure.

Yet I fear contagion. I fear my life will get out of control and I will be overshadowed by the urgent affairs of others. I fear for my family. I resist the Christ who beckons His followers to lay down their lives for each other. His talk of a yoke, a cross, of bearing one another’s burdens and giving one’s self away is not attractive to me. The implications of entering the world of suffering as a “Christ-one”, as yeast absorbed into the loaf of human need, are as terrifying as death itself. Yet this is the only way to life. The question is, will I choose life?”

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